Neoliberalism and authoritarianism: it is clear that aspects of both of these concepts are explanatory of our current moment, one in which neoliberal policies have continued to expand even as certain sociopolitical features of authoritarianism have been on the rise. How to account for the convergence of these two seemingly opposed political logics? This essay argues that contemporary discussions of literary form can help us define the precise aspects of both neoliberalism and authoritarianism that make this convergence possible. Contemporary literary criticism, it argues, is dominated by a skepticism toward the ideologically laden polarizations that once prevailed in the twentieth century. This skepticism, a critical attitude the author calls “compromise aesthetics,” reflects how the political imperative to grapple with the effects of different forms of authority—a grappling that is necessary for democracy—has, in neoliberal politics and aesthetics alike, been largely jettisoned in favor of expediency and the fantasy of total individual freedom. Turning to a reading of Rachel Kushner's novel The Flamethrowers, the essay finds that Kushner plays with the functions of author and narrator, revealing the degree to which an authoritative figure—the author—lies behind an apparent lack of ideological interest or direction, figured in the novel through its development of a radically passive narrator. The novel therefore demonstrates formally how political authority seizes upon the vacuum left behind by the abdication of politics, or, in other words, how authoritarian tendencies can arise out of the depoliticization of neoliberalism.

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